In this series we look at an Alaska town, village or city and try to understand it as more than just a travel destination. We want to understand the attractions, sure, but also its people, its economy, and its rhythm of life.
This week we are traveling to North Pole, Alaska - the Fairbanks suburb that makes children all over the country believe that Santa is a United States citizen. I find it plausible given his obvious addiction to cookies.
I have never personally been to the North Pole so I relied on two people know who have lived there for the inside scoop. I will call them Tom and Kristen because Alaska is the world's biggest small town they asked to remain anonymous for this article.
According to Wikipedia in 1952, in the greatest episode of "Flip This House" to never air, Dahl and Gaske Development Company purchased the Davis homestead that was sitting on the current town center, subdivided it, and renamed it North Pole in hopes of attracting a toy manufacturer to the area. It's since developed into some blend of a blue collar Fairbanks/Eielson AFB bedroom community, an industrial area, and a niche tourist town.
Location and Size
North Pole is sandwiched between Eielson Air Force Base and Fairbanks along the Richardson Highway in the Fairbanks North Star Borough of Alaska.
The official population is about 2,100 people. However, Tom says the city is only about four square miles and the greater North Pole area is more like 10-15k people. Given that there are only 100k people in the borough that's a significant chunk of the population. It has its own grocery store and police force and sales tax, although apparently everyone shops in Fairbanks to avoid it.
Both Tom and Kristen say it's a blue collar working man and air force area. It has much more of a rural vibe than Fairbanks does. "You kind of get this mix of a military and industrial population and also a little bit of country," Kristen says.
North Pole has easy access to Fairbanks while at the same time the land is cheaper, more spread out, and has less restrictions so it attracts those who want to build creatively or run snow machines without disturbing their neighbors.
It's also much cheaper to build houses there since it's flat and you only have to dig 40 feet for water.
While it does have the Santa Clause House, it's not a noticeable tourist town like Ketchikan or Homer. In fact, there might be just as much tourist action in the winter as the summer as busloads of mostly Asian tourists come to town to get their picture taken and letters stamped at the post office and hope to see the Northern Lights.
The oil refinery there was closed in 2014 due to high operating costs. Marathon Petroleum Corp. has been leasing it for storage for the last few years and purchased it mid-2019. The 2014 closure gutted a lot of the local industrial base and made North Pole residents even more reliant on work in Fairbanks and Eielson. The work is not as seasonal as in a tourist or salmon fishing town.
15-20 minute drive from Fairbanks according to Google Maps.
Like much of the interior North Pole is a land of extreme temperatures - cold in the winter and hot in the summer.
North Pole has an unfortunate mix of natural and human-made aspects to the weather. It sits at a lower elevation than Fairbanks, so it's colder and collects the smog from burning heating fuel and car exhaust from both cities.. As of this writing it's -38F in North Pole and -33F in Fairbanks. What's truly amazing is Tom says it's not uncommon to see a 30-degree difference in temperature in the ten minute cruise down the highway from the outskirts of Fairbanks to North Pole.
Like much of Alaska it's not uncommon to see moose. Fox, lynx, and bear can also be spotted around the area. The spruce and birch trees are thinner and more scraggly than you might find in southcentral Alaska - and there are big areas of thick black spruce that indicates growth on permafrost.
Tom seems to believe the mosquitos aren't as bad as Anchorage or the Mat-su in the summer, but he's reportedly impervious to bugs.
In Pop Culture
What to do
If you love roadside attractions, ironic holiday celebrations, paper mache, or zoos that only have one animal (guess which? hint: he has a very shiny nose) you should absolutely check out the Santa Claus House. If you don't have a car any hotel in Fairbanks would be happy to hawk you a day tour that caps off with lunch at the Chinese Pagoda that made one TripAdvisor reviewer type "HUGE, DELICIOUS PORTIONS" in all caps.
A little more under the radar, Tom says North Pole is home to one of the most successful Army Corps of Engineers projects in the whole State in the form of Chena Lake Recreation Area.
In 1967 the Cheena River flooded Fairbanks and the Corps built a lock and a way to divert that river around Fairbanks during the flood stage. To get gravel for that project they dug two big ponds and made an actual sandy beach area where you can play beach volleyball. Truly a rarity in Alaska. There are running and bike trails and barbecue pits and tons of events there. Plus, Tom says, if you get a few hot days in a row in the summer the water is actually warm enough to enjoy a swim.